12/07/2004 12:00AM

This time, Mr. Sulu has good foundation

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NEW ORLEANS - Trainer Josie Carroll was in an ebullient mood last Saturday as she stood by the paddock after the fifth race at Fair Grounds, a mile turf maiden special weight won impressively by Kalyptic. As she mapped out Kalyptic's distant future, the immediate plans of another horse in her stable were also on her mind.

"We're looking forward to running Mr. Sulu in the turf event on Louisiana Champions Day next Saturday," she said with a fleeting smile.

Mr. Sulu returned to the races Nov. 28 after a six-month layoff with a game score, splitting horses in the stretch to win a mile turf allowance.

"I was really happy the race was there because I felt he needed a prep race for the Turf," she said. "Winning it was a bonus we weren't looking for."

Carroll knows all about the disadvantages of not having a prep race for the Champions Day Turf. Last year, Mr. Sulu wasn't eligible for the allowance prep for the Turf and Carroll had to train the horse up to the race on works alone. Mr. Sulu closed well but settled for second to Silky Zarb in a race rained off the grass. In 2002, Mr. Sulu finished third in the Turf, and Carroll hopes the 6-year-old gelding is ready for the winner's trophy this year.

"He's really matured over the last couple of years," said Carroll. "He used to get spooked by things like loud noises. But he's a much more mature horse now."

Spanish Empire gave his all

Fans at Fair Grounds witnessed one of the most heart-breaking moments in a sport imbued with disappointments last Saturday when Spanish Empire died on the track during the running of the Tenacious Handicap.

Spanish Empire was the kind of horse racetrackers dream about, an animal with tactical speed and sheer determination in the stretch drive.

After climbing through his allowance conditions in Kentucky, the 3-year-old Spanish Empire blossomed into a handicap star at Fair Grounds last season. He dueled for the lead all the way in last year's Tenacious Handicap and stayed on gamely for the place. Spanish Empire then celebrated his 4-year-old birthday in the Jan. 2 Louisiana Handicap, taking the lead down the backstretch and holding off a late charge from Tenpins to win by a length at 11-1.

Spanish Empire was no match for the likes of Peace Rules and Funny Cide in the Grade 2 New Orleans Handicap, finishing seventh, but rebounded to win the Grade 3 Fifth Season at Oaklawn Park in his next start.

After taking the summer off, Spanish Empire was rounding into form and appeared set for a top effort in the Tenacious, his third start since the layoff. He tracked the swift Midway Road down the backstretch, but when he dug in to go after the leader approaching the far turn his heart gave out.

Amazingly, Spanish Empire refused to stop running. As his action slowed down to a flailing gait and he dropped back to last, Spanish Empire looked like a clock winding down to its last ticks. He made it around the turn and over to the grandstand rail, where he collapsed to the track and breathed his last, gasping breath. His human handlers made that desperate, doomed dash up the stretch to tend to their fallen charge, praying they weren't too late. But the gallant Spanish Empire was gone, dying as he had lived, just to keep running.

Champions Day preps

Happy Ticket, undefeated in six starts, turned in the third fastest of 46 five-furlong moves in 1:01.60 last Saturday in preparation for the Ladies.

Probable Juvenile favorite Crimson Stag breezed five furlongs in 1:02.60.

Zarb's Luck, who has won the last two editions of the Sprint, worked a half-mile in 48:40 in his final tune-up for an attempt at a three-peat.

Undefeated filly The Beter Man Can sped four furlongs in 49:20 and Equestrian Girls worked five furlongs in 1:01.60 for the Lassie.

Screen Isle worked five furlongs in 1:03.20 for the Turf. Walk This way went five furlongs in 1:03.60 and Meteor Impact worked six furlongs in 1:16.40 for the Classic.

On Sunday, Witt Ante lolled through a 54.80 half for the Classic. Lac Laronge breezed five furlongs in 1:06.80 and Zarb's Dahar sped five furlongs in 1:02.80 for the Sprint.

On Monday, Fine Stormy went four furlongs in 51.40 for the Sprint. Favorite Minit covered four furlongs in 49.80 and Robbeau breezed four furlongs in 50:80 for the Juvenile.